Project Journal: 1780s Ensemble Part III: Undergarments and Sources

I’ve decided to build a Robe a l’Anglaise, in addition to a chemise and pair of stays to wear under it. You can look at this post to see pictures of the Robe a l’Anglaise. The style of stays that I plan to use is the one below left: no straps allow ease of movement in the upper body, which is more suitable for dancing. The corset on the right is from the same period: I include it for informational and comparison purposes. Many stays at this time were either made of patterned or colored cloth, as these two are, and I enjoy the use of color on the undergarments.

c. 1780 Wool and Linen Corset and the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1780 Silk Stays at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The chemises that were worn under these stays were fairly simple and almost always constructed of linen. Here are a few examples.

c. 1780 Linen and Cotton Chemise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1780-1800 Linen Chemise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1790-1810 Linen Chemise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

I’ve collected some interesting (and sometimes conflicting) information regarding clothing from this period: these sources below were most helpful.

One of the best resources for this project is The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 by Norah Waugh. This book has images, patterns, contemporary quotes and construction details. It’s a great reference book to have access to for historic projects. Another wonderful reference book is Patterns of Fashion 1: 1660-1860 by Janet Arnold. This book is great supplement to Norah Waugh because it has an abundance of great drawings to explain the construction of garments. Another book that I know would have been useful to have is Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail by Avril Hart and Susan North.

This website is also a great resource: La Couturiere Parisienne. It includes a fantastic collection of fashion plates, paintings, construction and pattern information, as well as fabric and color research for clothing from the 1400s through the 1900s. (Just a quick note that it can be viewed in English or German, and if you suddenly find yourself viewing it in German look to the top right for a little icon that you can click to switch it back to English.)

In terms of the materials needed for these items I found a great source for this project and future projects here: Wm. Booth, Draper. This website has all sorts of great things. For example, low prices on yardage of linen, cotton, and silk (in 18th century patterns and colors) and cane boning for corsets.

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Project Journal: 1780s Ensemble Part II: More Research

As I mentioned in a recent post, I have decided to attend 2 events this month that will require clothing from the period 1775-1799 which I do not currently own and from a period I am not intimately familiar with. Thus I began this project in a flurry of research. After thinking of the popular styles, Robe a l’Francaise, Robe a l’Anglaise, Robe a la Polonaise, and Skirt and Jacket combination, I am left with one more possibility that was particularly popular in the late 1780s and 1790s: the Chemise Dress or Chemise de la Reine.

Les Lavoisiers by Jacques Louis David, 1788

The Chemise Dress is a descendant of the style of dress first worn by Marie Antoinette, called the Chemise de la Reine. This quote does a fantastic job of relating the social values surrounding this style in a quite amusing fashion! Aren’t you as amused as I am by this quote?

1784. When down dances my ribbon white, but so bepuckered and plaited, I could not tell what to make of her: so turning about, I cried, ‘Hey, Sally, my dear, what new frolic is this? It is like none of the gowns you used to wear.’ ‘No, my dear,’ crieth she, ‘it is no gown, it is the chemise de la rein’. ‘My dear,’ replied I, hurt at this gibberish, which I was half ashamed to own I did not understand; ‘What is it? You know I am not like you, master of French; let us have the name of your new dress in downright English.’  ‘Why then,’ said she, ‘if you must have it, it is the queen’ shift.’ Mercy on me, thought I, what will the world come to, when an oilman’s wife comes down to serve in the shop, not only in her own shift, but in that of a queen. (From Lady’s Magazine: Printed in The Cut of Women’s Clothes: 1600-1930 by Norah Waugh)

Well, at first I was thinking “Ah! This is the dress for me! It is fairly simple (and therefore quick) and looks very elegant.” But then I thought about three big deterrents: 1-the similarity of a simple white gathered dress to the clothing from the turn of the 19th century, when afternoon dresses were white and somewhat similar in character and style, 2-the amount of extra fabric needed for petticoats to achieve the soft draping of the skirt and 3-the two events I plan to wear this to (#1: a vintage ball, for which an elegant train would be entirely impractical and #2: an American Revolution colonial fair, for which I would be cold, have a train that would just get dirty, and a style of dress that is about 15-20 years in the future). Those arguments eliminated this style as a possibility, but I wanted to share it with you anyway, because I think it is lovely.

Here are some more examples of Chemise Dresses in various other paintings. (Also, take a look at the hats, aren’t they fabulous? They remind me of the scale of hats in the early 20th century. Can you see the resemblance?)

Comtesse de La Chatre by Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, 1789
Mme Seriziat by David, 1795

Project Journal: 1780s Ensemble Part I: Initial Research

I’ve decided to attend 2 events in September which require clothing from the last quarter of the 18th century (1775-1799). This decision is rather at the last minute when it comes to building new historic clothes: I now have exactly three weeks to make a decision about what to wear, pick out fabrics, make patterns, and complete the construction of the garments. Yikes!

So I’ve been busy researching this period because it is not within the realm of my previous historic clothing projects, which have generally focused on the 19th century. Unlike women’s clothing in the 19th century, for which I can recall silhouette, construction details, pattern shapes, and fabric choices and colors with far less research for each garment (because I’ve already done all that research and it’s all in my head…), I really need the research to be able to consider reproducing historic clothing from the 18th century. Here are some inspirational images I thought I would share!

Here’s how this conversation went in my head: “Where do I start?” I asked myself. “Silhouette?” I replied. “Ah, yes. That sounds good. But… what is the silhouette during this period? Hopefully not panniers!” because panniers, you see, require a lot more effort to produce and a lot more fabric to cover. “Well, let’s start by looking for some images,” I suggested. And here we go!

c. 1770 Silk Robe a l'Francaise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Now, you can see by looking at the above image that these gowns require panniers to achieve the exaggerated hip shape. You can also see that these gowns are Robes a l’Francaise, meaning robes in the French style. This style of gown has the characteristic pleating at center back that falls from the back neck line to the floor in one piece. This style, with the panniers and the Robe a l’Francaise, is not what I have the time to make in three weeks. So we move on!

1770-1775 Silk Robe a l'Anglaise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In contrast to the Robe a l’Francaise, I am actually interested in the style of dress on the left: the Robe a l’Anglaise, or English style robes. This style evolved from the Robe a l’Francaise: over time the side back seams of the Robe al’Francaise were cut close enough together that the characteristic pleats were no longer used.

Below, you can see another two examples of gowns in the style of a Robe a l’Anglaise. These two are from the 1780s and you can see that the width of the hips has diminished from the 1770s. Note that all of these gowns have open fronts that show the petticoat underneath.

c. 1780 Cotton Robe a l'Anglaise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1780 Cotton Robe a l'Anglaise from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1780-1785 Cotton Robe a l'Anglaise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1780-1785 Cotton Robe a l'Anglaise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
There are other options for this period as well: there is the style Robe a la Polonaise, which has a characteristic  bunching of fabric across the back side as well as the skirt and jacket combination. I’m not interested in making a Robe a la Polonaise at this point, but a skirt and jacket combination is a possibility. You can see these styles below. There is another style as well: the Chemise Dress, but you’ll have to wait for my next post to see and read about it!
c. 1780 Linen Robe a la Polonaise at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
c. 1785 Silk Jacket at the Metropolitan Museum of Art